Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Film Appreciation - It's Chinatown

Jay Burleson reveres Roman Polanski's 1974 classic Chinatown for Film Appreciation.

When this blog first started, my first film appreciation article was about Roman Polanski's Frantic, which would be followed up with another Polanski work, The Fearless Vampire Killers, later in year one. In retrospect, if I based my Polanski writing on the film I felt was his best overall, I would've written about Chinatown during the first week of this blog's existance.

Polanski's 1974 work, starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, is easily his most polished (up there with The Pianist) and is the film I consider to be the best of the bunch. Polanski is one of my favorite directors, if not my favorite, so that's saying a lot for me. It's also a pretty easy call, as anywhere you look, Chinatown is hailed as a classic.

Chinatown is centered on L.A. private detective J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) and a deviant plot he gets mixed up in. It all starts when he is hired by a woman who believes her husband is cheating. This seems to be the typical line of work Gittes deals with, but there's a twist here that sends Chinatown into motion. To say much more than that would spoil some of the wonderful twists that come about, and there are plenty of them to go around. Once J.J. is involved, he won't allow himself to step away from the situation, and the deeper he digs, the more depressing the story becomes.

Chinatown is a noir, but in many ways a neo-noir, as it is set in 1937 yet was shot in the early 1970s. Polanski and crew do a wonderful job capturing the '30s period, but that should go without saying in such a high class Hollywood production. This is a film of the second golden age of Hollywood, and is the type of film that doesn't get made in this day and age-- at least not within the Hollywood system. Polanski basically shot his own ending and made that decision himself, and I don't see that happening on a Hollywood film now.

The film owes a lot of its success to the fantastic script penned by Robert Towne. The first draft was huge and was cut down considerably by Polanski and Towne as they recrafted it out of the wonderful story Towne had come up with. In the end, the two would be torn over how the film should end. Towne preferred a happy ending with Nicholson's private eye saving the day. Polanski was on the opposite end of the spectrum and saw a darker ending to the story. When it came down to it, Polanski wrote the ending just before filming it, and what he wrote is exactly what concludes Chinatown. To me, it is the perfect ending to the film, and only rarely do I see film fans complain about the direction Polanski took with it. Polanski himself has described it as giving the film an ending that would upset people by showing them an injustce has been done, thus making the film memorable, whereas a happy ending would serve no real meaning. Of course, I'm paraphrasing what he said, but I definitely understand where he was coming from. It certaintly seemed to work.

Jack Nicholson had a lot going for him during the early '70s. His screen credits over this time period are some of the finest films of the decade, and contain another favorite film of mine with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. His acting as J.J. Gittes is spot on, but crediting him just feels like lip service. This is a classic, and from top to bottom everyone does their part with skill and precision. My favorite performance would probably be director John Huston in the role of Noah Cross. The legendary director turns in a legendary performance to go along with his other fabulous work. Really sinister stuff, and in the best way, as he comes across smooth and charming during his first appearence. He's perfect as the well-to-do bad guy with a good reputation around town. He puts it best in the film, "'Course I'm respectable. I'm old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough."

Polanski is great, one of the best directors ever, but one mistake he did make here was when it came to hiring a composer. Producer Robert Evans eventually went on to hire Jerry Goldsmith after Polanski's man didn't work out, and the result gave filmgoers some of the best score work I can think of. Goldsmith's main score piece is Chinatown, and I can't imagine it any other way. When those opening credits (my favorite title font ever) begin to play over Goldsmith's score, I can't help but get excited.

Chinatown is a classic, by my standards and those of many other filmgoers throughout the years. Its influence is so strong that it even inspired another of my favorite films-- Halloween. John Carpenter has stated that he sat down with D.P. Dean Cundey and watched Chinatown before shooting the film, and wanted to capture the feeling. He felt that Chinatown looked great, but there was also a darkness there. Something was off there, and that's what he wanted for Haddonfield in Halloween. It's always interesting when films you love inspire other films you love, but it's definitely not surprising when you hear that filmmakers were inspired by Chinatown.

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